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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Trying to read ‘Zeitoun’

When it comes to reading, a friend of mine adheres to a 50-page rule: If the book fails to engage her within the first 50 pages, she puts it down and moves on to something else. This is a good philosophy, but I take pretty much the opposite tact: I finish every book I start, even books I hate. For me, reading is a real commitment. However, I am now faced with the difficult choice of whether to quit reading a book. And it’s not because the book is poorly written, or lacks a compelling story. It’s because the writer, Dave Eggers, appears to have gotten the story wrong, and I feel bamboozled.

Here’s the scenario: A few weeks ago, I picked up Eggers’ acclaimed 2009 book “Zeitoun,” a non-fiction account of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a New Orleans resident who helped rescue flooded neighbors during Hurricane Katrina, and was then wrongly accused of terrorism and jailed for 23 days. (The Syrian-born Zeitoun is an American citizen; his wife, Kathy, is a Louisiana native and Muslim convert.)

I’m not that far into the book, but here’s what I’ve learned so far: Zeitoun is a devoted husband, father and small business owner, a calm and thoughtful man who treats his workers well and is loved and admired by all who know him. However, recent reports suggest that Zeitoun is a much more sinister character. On Nov. 8, a grand jury indicted Zeitoun for allegedly trying to kill his ex-wife — the couple is now divorced — and ordering a hit on her from behind bars. During the summer, Zeitoun was charged with beating his wife and striking her with a tire iron.

Zeitoun’s troubles were reported earlier this year, but I missed those reports. Instead, I learned of them over the weekend, when I stumbled across an LA Review of Books essay (click here) by Victoria Patterson that asks, “Did Dave Eggers Get ‘Zeitoun’ Wrong?”

The more I read, the more it seemed like Eggers had the wool pulled over his eyes. Which isn’t to say that the events in the book aren’t true — I can believe that Zeitoun helped rescue his neighbors, and that he was wrongly jailed. But the saintly Zeitoun in Eggers’ book bears no resemblance to the man who allegedly beat his wife with a tire iron and tried to arrange her murder. Kathy Zeitoun has said that “Zeitoun” paints an accurate picture of her marriage at the time the book was written, but has also testified that she suffered abuse from the beginning of her marriage until the end, and in an interview with the New Orleans Times-Picayune said that her husband had grown angrier and more radical in his religious views.

Patterson writes, “Eggers worked closely with the Zeitouns, and he credits the book as a partnership of sorts. ‘With a book like this,’ he explains in a Q&A on the [Zeitoun] Foundation’s website, ‘I think you get the most accuracy when you involve your subjects as much as possible.’ When he finished chapters, he’d send them to the Zeitouns for accuracy, and they went over the manuscript ‘six or seven’ times, leading one to ponder: If you had editorial privilege over your own story, would you whitewash? Would you be tempted to be more heroic, smarter, prettier, kinder, funnier, friendlier, and on and on?”

Yes, maybe! When news of the Zeitoun family’s troubles broke over the summer, The Awl’s Dave Bry wrote, “‘Zeitoun’ is beautifully written, and gives an invaluable look at a city in the wake of natural disaster, but it bothered me very much in its depiction of its eponymous hero as a flawless human being.” The headline: “Unrealistically Depicted Human All Too Human.” (click here.)

Eggers is a very good writer, and I’ve admired his work since his touching and funny memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” I also enjoyed his 2006 book “What is the What,” which is based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee. Eggers called the book a novel, but much of it was based on his conversations with Deng; in style and tone, the book is similar to “Zeitoun.” Both books recreate conversations and events to tell complex and moving autobiographical tales, and paint their heroes as noble people, struggling in an unjust and cruel world.

The criminal charges against Zeitoun make me question almost everything Eggers has ever written, and raise numerous questions, like: Did Eggers ignore aspects of Zeitoun’s personality because they didn’t suit his narrative? Have the recent charges against Zeitoun prompted Eggers to re-examine his book, and consider any revisions or additions? Much to my frustration, Eggers has kept mum about the disturbing charges against his protagonist, other than to issue a joint statement with film director Jonathan Demme (who was developing a movie based on the book) saying he’s saddened by recent events, and concerned about the safety and well-being of Kathy and the children. “As the legal process takes its course, we hope that you will join us in respecting the family’s privacy,” the statement says.

Well, I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough. Eggers owes his many readers a real explanation. He won the American Book Award for “Zeitoun.” A lot of people read it — it was a best seller. But when Edward Champion from the website Reluctant Habits tried to get Eggers to comment on the whole affair, the writer refused. (click here.) And as someone who bought Eggers’ book, I think I deserve better. Until he opens up and explains what happened, I agree with Champion when he writes that “Zeitoun” is a “misleading feel-good hagiography.”

I read a bit more of “Zeitoun” last night, and it was a fascinating experience. I couldn’t read more than a few sentences without wondering about the accuracy of Eggers’ reporting, and whether Zeitoun was beating his wife off the page. There’s so much detail in “Zeitoun,” and yet the book now seems very thin to me. Rather than thinking about what’s in the book, I’m more intrigued by what isn’t. I cannot predict whether I’ll finish the book, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I do. However, I won’t be recommending it to anyone, and in a way, I wish I’d never read a single page.

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